Surely it was never quite like this in England's past? These tense last-minute auditions for tournament places, with every training session fiercely competitive and every minute on the pitch coveted among the numerous contenders playing for a place? Well, no, it wasn't.
Sven Goran Eriksson's attitude to such matters was very different to Fabio Capello's and the contrast says much about the two men and their philosophies. For every one of his three tournaments, the laid-back Eriksson announced his squad of 23 players a month or more before the opening game, adding anything from two to seven stand-by players who would only be called upon in case of injuries.
Before the last competitions, in 2004 and 2006, there was then a relaxed final friendly in Manchester, in which six goals were put past accommodating opposition (Iceland and Jamaica respectively) amid a mass of substitutions, and the golden generation waved farewell to the crowd in full knowledge that they would be on the plane.
"Laid-back" and "relaxed" do not fit quite so well with Capello. Whereas several other countries have essentially gone down the Eriksson route, in naming names early and having only the actual squad involved in recent preparations, the Italian has taken every advantage of Fifa's new system of allowing up to 30 names to be submitted, which do not have to be reduced to the maximum 23 until midnight (central European time) on Tuesday. Training, consequently, has been at a high level in every sense; Irdning in the Austrian Alps, is at 2,200 feet above sea level, still less than half what they will encounter at their base in South Africa.
The team Capello has picked to start against Japan this afternoon in Graz offers some clues as to his thinking. Tom Huddlestone will be thrilled to be offered a first start at such a crucial time, after half an hour against Mexico last Monday and a few minutes against Brazil in November. In between those two games, he has proved a strong, if one-paced performer in the Tottenham midfield, with a fearsome shot when venturing forward. Primarily defensive duties are what Capello is seeking while Gareth Barry's fitness is uncertain, while West Ham's Scott Parker – the best tackler available if he could avoid the wrath of foreign referees – will consider himself unfortunate if he is not given at least the second 45 minutes today to make a late claim. The selection illustrates the classic dilemma of international football: whether to pick the men in form, however inexperienced, against international opposition, or stick with the tried and trusted. Trust in Michael Carrick appears to be running out.
Exactly the same predicament applies in choosing between Joe Cole – 53 caps but out of sorts at club level – and Adam Johnson, the coming young man. Both will be concerned about finding the berth they are competing for on the left flank going today to a third party, Aaron Lennon. If Capello believes that Lennon and Theo Walcott can operate equally well down either side, no doubt interchanging regularly, there is no great necessity to have another out-and-out winger like Johnson around. But Cole, he said, will play in the second half: "Joe Cole is really good, I know him."
The manager's words were much less encouraging for Johnson, after being allowed only five minutes against Mexico: "I asked him what happened and he said it was difficult to breathe," Capello reported. "To play for the national team at Wembley is not easy. The shirt is really heavy." The same, of course, applies to World Cups, only more so. After 24 League goals for Sunderland this season, Darren Bent has been given a sixth cap in attack, aware that he has never made anything of the previous five, nor scored for England. It will take a tremendous performance this afternoon to oust Jermain Defoe or Emile Heskey from one of the striking berths, or to squeeze out a midfielder when cover is needed there.
Steven Gerrard will sit out the first half against Japan, so the formation is likely to be a conventional 4-4-2 with Frank Lampard returning alongside Huddlestone in the centre of midfield and Wayne Rooney pushed right up alongside Bent; the nation holding its breath every time an opponent looms within kicking range of Rooney. The sudden injury to Gerrard in midweek, however slight, emphasised how fragile the dependence on two or three key players can be.
Barry comes into that category because of the dearth of experienced defensive midfielders. Capello said yesterday of his prospects of recovering from ankle ligament damage: "He has improved a lot. He is getting better and better. The doctor says he is really good. But we have to wait until the last check next Tuesday. After that we will decide whether he will be with us in South Africa. If he can train normally following the first game against the United States [on 12 June] he will come with us. If it is going to be longer, he won't."
There was a positive assessment of Huddlestone: "I have seen him in a lot of games. This year he always played very well as a holding player and I am happy because he is here as he is one of the important English players."
And for those who like to relate everything back to 1966, and see Capello as the nearest thing that England have had to the sainted Sir Alf Ramsey: Ramsey also kept a larger squad on tenterhooks before releasing five of them three weeks before the opening game.
England (v Japan, 1.15pm, ITV1): James; G Johnson, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; Walcott, Lampard, Huddlestone, Lennon; Bent, Rooney.
Fabio's likely lads
David James (49 caps)
Fine performance in FA Cup final was a reminder that he is the most experienced goalkeeper (by far), and the most reliable (just).
Robert Green (10 caps)
Did himself no harm with his first-half performance against Mexico after a scratchy season with West Ham. First reserve in goal?
Joe Hart (2 caps)
Loan move to Birmingham worked perfectly but has never started an England game and should not be expected to at World Cup.
Glen Johnson (21 caps, 1 goal)
Automatic choice as long as he's fully fit, which he seemed to be at Wembley last week.
Jamie Carragher (35 caps)
Lucky to be included after three poor games at right-back in last World Cup, retirement and a moderate season.
Rio Ferdinand (77 caps, 3 goals)
Insists he is fully fit for his fourth World Cup after back problems, but does not yet look in the commanding form of 2006.
John Terry (59 caps, 6 goals)
Needs to win back respect of the country. First choice alongside new captain and most likely defender to score.
Matthew Upson (19 caps, 1 goal)
Did well to miss the Mexico game. Never really established himself but may have a role to play as deputy centre-half.
Ledley King (20 caps, 2 goals)
Fit enough but not quick enough at Wembley, where Capello's faith must have been shaken by way he was outrun.
Ashley Cole (77 caps)
Has developed into world-class performer despite personal problems. May benefit from injury break. Due a goal.
Leighton Baines (2 caps)
Tricky decision between him and Stephen Warnock. Did nothing to justify selection in either of two caps.
Gareth Barry (36 caps, 2 goals)
Desperation to have him fit shows in leaving decision until last minute and even accepting he may miss first group game.
Frank Lampard (77 caps, 20 goals)
English optimism will rise hugely if he takes his Chelsea form, and goals, into the World Cup. Failed to last time.
Steven Gerrard (79 caps, 16 goals)
High time to work out the vice-captain's best role. Sven will laugh if he ends up in centre of midfield with Lampard.
James Milner (8 caps)
Quality is a greater virtue than versatility at this level and he has enough of it to play centrally or wide.
Theo Walcott (10 caps, 3 goals)
Seems certain to make the trip now and has probably pushed himself ahead of Aaron Lennon to start on the right flank.
Aaron Lennon (16 caps)
Emerged as supersub at last World Cup but has not trained on. Just in front of Shaun Wright-Phillips?
Tom Huddlestone (2 caps)
Michael Carrick's poor form gives the powerful Spurs man a chance to shine against Japan ahead of unlucky Scott Parker.
Joe Cole (53 caps, 10 goals)
Experience, the extra touch of quality and an ability to do the unpredictable could edge out Adam Johnson.
Wayne Rooney (59 caps, 25 goals)
More mature than four years ago, and remains greatest potential match-winner. Not at peak fitness.
Peter Crouch (38 caps, 21 goals)
Must be ahead of Heskey, yet is still in danger of not starting if Rooney is picked in United role as lone striker.
Emile Heskey (57 caps, 7 goals)
Study those stats and weep. Capello has left him on the bench since last autumn.
Jermain Defoe (40 caps, 11 goals)
Poor for England since scoring two in Holland last August. And no Wigan in England's group.
Missing out Michael Dawson, Stephen Warnock, Michael Carrick, Scott Parker, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adam Johnson, Darren Bent.
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